Delivering an opening statement from an unusual point of view can be a powerful way to grab jurors’ attention and pull them into the narrative of a case. In a recent webinar with an all-star panel of trial pros, Karen Koehler detailed her approach to creative openings, including how one eye-popping opening statement set up a $123 million verdict at trial over a crash that killed five and injured dozens.
“It’s the Disney approach, right? If a teacup can talk, then why can’t a sidewalk? Or in this case, an actual person: I was a duck boat captain,” Koehler said of her opening at trial over the 2015 “duck boat” crash on a Washington bridge.
The boat, a World War II-era amphibious vehicle subsequently used for tour excursions, crossed the roadway’s centerline and crashed into a bus full of international charter students. Koehler, of Stritmatter Kessler Koehler Moore and representing more than 40 plaintiffs in the case, claimed the vehicle was unsafe.
“My name is Captain Roger Wilko,” Koehler said to jurors as she slipped on a captain's hat and duck whistle to open the trial. “It’s September 24, 2015 [the date of the accident] and I’d like you to join us on a duck ride.”
Koehler then took jurors on their “tour,” setting up her claims that the companies that supplied and operated the tour boat had not properly maintained it.
Randi McGinn, of McGinn, Montoya, Love & Curry, said that kind of opening grabs jurors' interest and establishes credibility in a way that a more traditional narrative style may not. “Just by doing something different, you attract the attention of the jurors, and they say ‘Oh, when I look for an explanation, this is the person I’m going to, the person who is not the [typical] lawyer, and who is talking in simple terms, and is really interesting,” McGinn said.
McGinn said choosing which point of view to tell the case’s story is particularly important to drive the narrative. And Koehler noted that she considered delivering the opening from the point of view of the boat's wheel, its axle, and the bus, among other perspectives, before settling on the captain.
And she added that she maintained the opening’s punch by not stepping outside of character to set up the unusual narrative.
“There was no explanation that I was going to be the duck captain, I just was,” Koehler said.
Some attorneys could worry about alienating jurors with such an unusual opening. But Malekpour & Ball’s Artemis Malekpour, who served as a consultant in the trial, pointed out that, despite the character-driven narrative, Koehler’s tone maintained the case's gravity. “She’s not being hokey about it,” Malekpour said. “She’s so respectful… [she wasn’t] trying to overdramatize it.”
The discussion on the power of point of view in openings was only a small part of the first webinar in a planned, multi-part series analyzing the trial and the techniques Koehler and co-counsel Andrew Ackley of Stritmatter used to win the $123 million verdict.
The webinar, featuring Koehler, Ackley, McGinn, and Malekpour, features extensive trial video and covers a range of topics, including: using courtroom space to your advantage, structuring your case to tell the most effective story, when to turn up the heat on hostile witnesses, and more.
It’s fully indexed and available on demand as part of CVN Discovery, an ever-expanding collection featuring hours of webinars and interviews from the nation's top attorneys on both sides of the courtroom. It's a deep dive into the proven techniques that win trials.
And it's included free with CVN's unrivaled trial video library.
Email Arlin Crisco at firstname.lastname@example.org.